On 17 March Sri Lanka will hold elections in 235 provincial councils. Despite the end of the civil war, and the heralding of a peaceful era prioritising development and promoting tourism through government policy, the times are not peaceful. Election violence, as happens in almost all the elections, is taking place at the moment without exception.
Reliance on the police and the armed forces to ensure a peaceful atmosphere has increased. Forces are to be placed within 25 meters of each polling station, adding to the usual security provided by the police. A Special Task Force is to be positioned in each counting station. Five hundred checkpoints and roadblocks are to be established all over the country, to deter and prevent violent action and transportation of illegal firearms. All these preparations are for the election day, to ensure a ‘free and fair’ election.
But election-related violence is not absent. The two impartial non-governmental election monitoring bodies in Sri Lanka, People’s Action for Free and Fair Elections (PAFFREL) and Campaign for Free and Fair Election (CaFFE), are hard at work to mobilise impartial election monitoring teams and advocacy to minimise election violence. PAFFREL had mobilised over 10,000 people for poll-monitoring purposes in 23 administrative districts, and CaFFE already has a database of 406 election-related violent incidents taking place from January 27 to March 15. These include two murders, a bomb attack, shooting and abductions, which hint at the tensions underneath the election.
War refugees in Puttalam Vavuniya are provided with state transport facilities to travel to their relevant constituency to vote, while campaigning by certain political parties not aligned with the current government is hampered by police intervention. Thus, the state policy appears to play a dual role that favours only what is supportive of the existing regime.
As individuals and civil society, we are witnessing alarming tendencies in these happenings. Violence continues, presence of armed forces is widespread, and people’s interest towards voting indicates a steep decrease.
This lack of public interest in voting is the most alarming. It is not merely due to the difficulties or the hassle of voting. It indicates a lack of trust in the rulers, from the voters’ perspective. It denotes lack of trust in democracy, in the policies and procedures of our country. Does it also indicate an indifference to what is going on? Or an abject resignation and a sense of powerlessness?
As civil society, this is what we are asking at the moment. Is this the underlying tension that we all feel at the moment? Is this how we want to live, and continue living?